One of the things I missed out on this summer was the release of the yearly “Mindset List,” first produced at Beloit College but now a product of Marist College, which enumerates the cultural experiences that incoming first-year college students each year are likely to have been the first to experience, or not experience, or take for granted. This is something I always think about months before the list is received, as I try to figure out the best ways to reach the students I’ll be teaching at the start of a new academic year. For example, this is the first class of first-year college students likely to have been born during the ongoing War on Terror, but for years now I’ve been dealing with students who have no memory of the vaunted “pre-09.11 world,” so that’s a more symbolic distinction. Even though this year’s incoming students were born a few years before the first iPhone came out, though, they’re likely to have no memories of a time before smartphones were available, and that’s something that can matter a lot in how I interact with my students and shape lessons to help them learn the things I’m trying to teach them. In a few years, I’ll start to get students who won’t even be able to remember a time when seemingly everyone just always had a smartphone, and that will introduce even more wrinkles to my teaching approaches.
With TikTok in the news so much lately, it’s become impossible to ignore not just the quickening pace of technological change these days, but how those changes affect our larger culture. I went online this morning before my first class in the hope of finding news stories about the fears that college students have about the pandemic, but when I did a news search on “college students afraid,” all the stories I found were about students’ worries about what will happen if TikTok closes down here in America. Regardless of what happens with TikTok, though, I often remind my students that in five years’ time, most of the top five apps they’ll be using on their smartphones haven’t even been invented yet, and that helps them realize the importance of their own need to adapt to newer technology and the larger changes that technology wreaks on our society.
As I’ve been researching my next book, and reading up on the pernicious effects of the pro-corporate “reform” movement in American education in my lifetime, one of the things I’m constantly struck by is how the “schooling” that most poor and/or minority children in America have been receiving does nothing to prepare those children for the rapidly-changing world around them. At the institutions where this ideology has taken hold, the “education” that students get is not only of the old-school “drill and repeat and regurgitate” variety that has consistently been proven ineffective when it comes to actual learning, but is often reinforced with discipline regimes that make these schools more like military academies than anything else. Beyond the inhumanity of subjecting children to that kind of treatment for no other reason than because of their “crime” of having been poor and/or a minority, this method of education (if it can even be called education) drills a very fundamental lesson into children’s heads: Don’t think. Just do what you’re told.
We are at a very different point in this pandemic right now than we were six months ago, when so much of our world was closing down for the first time. We had to ask a lot of very difficult questions then, and a lot of the answers we got were even tougher to deal with than the questions themselves, but many of us — certainly not all — have been doing the best we can under the circumstances, not just for ourselves but for the people who depend on us, whether those people are family members, friends, or just people we have responsibility for in our daily activities. I certainly count my students among the people I have a duty to help, and I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to balance my responsibilities to those students, since the elements of a high-quality education and the safety concerns of the current pandemic often end up opposed to one another. Every good teacher I know has struggled mightily with this dilemma, and more than a few teachers have essentially been forced into retirement after being confronted with outside forces that effectively prevented them from doing right by their students.
As we’ve learned more about COVID-19 this year, though, those changes in our knowledge have created new needs to adapt, and our increasing knowledge about how this coronavirus is transmitted from person to person should be compelling us to think about the best way to go about things with this new knowledge. For all those Americans who have been short-changed in their education, though, they have been robbed of the capacity to make their own informed judgments about this issue, an issue that is quite literally life-or-death. They are essentially dependent on those in power, those who got a good education that gave them the skills necessary to adapt to rapidly-changing situations, to guide them as to what to do. When that guidance fails, people die. Approximately 200,000 people have died here in America so far, and all but the most delusional are expecting that number to keep shooting up in the weeks and months ahead.
There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on my campus yet, but there have been over 130 cases documented on our parent campus so far. Since our campus is somewhat of an activity hub for the small town here, there are also still a number of events attracting community members to our grounds as well. Even before we became aware of how communicable COVID-19 is through the air, the prospect of in-person classes was dicey enough to start with. Now that the CDC has issued new guidance about how easily this coronavirus can be spread in the air, all the questions about not just the safety of holding in-person classes during the pandemic, but the sense in even attempting such a feat, must be asked anew. I can only hope that the people responsible for making those decisions, not just here but everywhere, have the ability to process the new things we know now, and to come to better decisions as a result of this new knowledge.
There are no guarantees that there will be a successful COVID-19 vaccine one day, but modern science is capable of incredible things, and just as we need to think about the best ways of dealing with the pandemic as we understand it right now, we must also think about the best ways of dealing with it in the future, which will, with any luck, include a time when we’re all vaccinated and we can safely think of the pandemic as something from our past. Of all the lessons we need to learn as a result of this pandemic, I deeply hope that the need to stop “educating” children through the tenets of the modern “reform” movement — forcing unthinking obedience on them, deliberately not cultivating their critical thinking skills — becomes clear to more Americans. We are currently reaping the problems of the seeds that the “reformers” sowed over these last thirty-five years, and we will continue to have the same problems, complete with their own fatality counts, until we reverse course and give all children the education (and other opportunities) they deserve.